Women are not the same as men. This widely acknowledged truth applies in multiple, multiple ways beyond the obvious external differences. Each sex is more vulnerable to certain diseases than the other, and each responds differently to certain medications. Most everyone recognizes that men and women tend to think differently, and for good reason: scientific studies show that as early as in the womb, genes and hormones begin affecting brain development in different ways in males and females.
To cite just one example, females tend to be more person-oriented, while males are more task/object-oriented. “Science has affirmed … that women are better able to determine a person’s feelings simply by seeing facial expressions,” writes author/speaker Mary Beth Bonacci. “The corpus callosum—the ‘connector’ between the two halves of the brain—is larger in women than in men, making us better able to access our feelings and perform tasks that require the simultaneous use of both sides of the brain. (Men, meanwhile, are more adept at tasks that require the concentrated use of one side of the brain.)
Our society, however, has been telling us for several decades now that in order to have an even playing field with men and find fulfillment in life, women must try to become like men and/or deny what makes us women. How is that equality? Similarly, current cultural norms pressure us to harm our bodies and chemically force them to mimic men’s inability to bear children—essentially to attack our own bodies. How is that freedom?
Advocates of the total and holistic well-being of women, on the other hand, celebrate and defend women’s special abilities.
An Astonishing Power
Being able to reproduce another human being—sheltering, nurturing, and carrying a new person within one’s own body—is really an amazing gift. I never understood just how special it was until two things happened to me. First, my husband and I couldn’t get pregnant after 17 months of trying. I certainly appreciated the ability to bear a child much more when I faced the prospect of not having it. Secondly, when eventually I did get pregnant, I found it hard to wrap my head around the fact that there was another human being growing inside me. Beforehand, I had never understood why so often in TV shows when a woman gives birth, she or the father will say, “It’s a baby!” as if they didn’t know what was coming. Now I understand. It’s just such an astounding thing when a baby comes out of you.
Shouldn’t we be celebrating this incredible gift of procreating and nurturing new human life then, instead of acting like it’s a curse? Yes, there’s been a history of men who try to limit women’s abilities to bearing and raising children. But the answer is not to repudiate it. Rather, I think we need to replace competitiveness with a return to a sense of wonder and mutual appreciation.
Anthropologist Margaret Mead visited multiple cultures in the early to mid-twentieth century and reported something she noticed in all of them. While what was regarded as women’s work or men’s work differed from one culture to another, the significance of one was always higher. Basket-weaving, for instance, was done by women in some cultures and by men in others; it was highly valued, however, in those cultures where it was men’s work. The roles were not always the same in the cultures she observed, but in each culture, men’s work—whatever it was—was more highly valued than women’s.
Mead theorized that unconsciously the men were searching for significance and “irreversible achievement” in their work more than women because the women were already satisfied: they saw the intrinsic value and significance of bearing children and found satisfaction and meaningfulness in that “irreversible achievement.”
This is no longer true in our own culture, however.
Appreciating the Gift without Distorting It into a Straight-jacket
There are those who undervalue women as women, including their person-making potency. Some try to limit woman’s scope to only that ability; others try to undermine it. The answer to these errors is not this either-or but a both-and. The right approach is to celebrate women’s power to bear and nurture children as well as all the other gifts women have, both generally and individually.
“New Feminists” use the term feminine genius to recognize the gifts women tend to have to a greater degree than men. Dr. Deborah Savage, in discussing feminine genius, connects it to the fact that “only women can give life.”
The feminine genius is grounded in the undeniable fact that all women possess both the physical and psychic capacity to be mothers and … as a consequence are more likely and more capable than men of paying attention to another person.… This attitude is not a feature only of those who are mothers or of those who plan to be mothers in the physical sense. It is true of women, because every woman possesses this unique capacity in the depths of her being, this capacity for love, for being a gift to others, no matter what form it takes.… The unique contact with the new human being developing within her gives rise to an attitude towards human beings—not only towards her own child, but every human being—and profoundly marks the woman’s personality.
Acknowledging this tremendous gift then is not the same as limiting us to and devaluing that gift, as if “women are really just made for baby-making.” Bonacci points out that while “women’s specific and unique gifts are important in the family,” the person who coined the term feminine genius, John Paul II, “was equally clear that those same gifts are needed in the larger world, . . . [stating], ‘Woman has a genius all her own, which is vitally essential to both society and the Church.’ Society needs women’s gifts. It is good that we are present in business, in government, in life. We bring a balance, a perspective that is needed in every facet of life.”
Savage echoes these truths:
This does not mean that all [women] are called to do in life is to change dirty diapers and clean the house, . . . but what it does reveal is that in the depths of her being, along with this capacity to bear life, every woman has an intelligence that issues from this reality—she sees the other and naturally turns toward him, includes the reality of the person in her deliberations. One of the most frequent lessons I learned when working in the corporate world was to not be afraid to be the one person in the room who argued for a large enough vision that included the actual experience of the persons we were about to impact in our decisions.
Bonacci adds: “Real feminine nature isn’t weak or fawning. It isn’t about wearing frilly dresses or reading romance novels. Real femininity is strong, confident, vibrant. But it is strong, confident and vibrant in a uniquely feminine way.”
Stay tuned to the Natural Womanhood blog for Part II of Jeanette Flood’s commentary on the feminine genius, including how Fertility Awareness-Based Methods and Natural Family Planning best help women enjoy the reproductive respect they deserve.